Lose yourself in the old-world charm of Tamil Nadu’s dreamy hill station, Coonoor. Its historic food joints and colonial guesthouses will take you back in time. By Abhinanda Bhattacharya
Mahatma Gandhi visited the Crown Bakery in Coonoor on February 2, 1934. It was the second generation of the Sattar family who served him. I imagine he stood there relishing the goodness of ginger biscuits, marble cakes, fresh bread, nankhatais (short bread biscuits popular in the subcontinent), and iced pastries. I stood there too last November, and perhaps like he, felt myself being enveloped in the aromas of fresh dough, flour, and chocolate.
A famous patisserie in Coonoor, Crown Bakery was established in 1880 on Mount Road. Those days, it was nestled in the hills with a panoramic view of church steeples, quaint cottages, and green slopes. Today, you feel a little vexed about the lack of beauty around it, as it is located in the bustling heart of Coonoor, but it is still worthwhile to make a stop here to gorge on biscuits, share a slice of marble cake with your travel companion, buy a fresh loaf for later, and read the historical clipping about Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s visit to the bakery.
Coonoor is, perhaps, the best-kept secret of the Nilgiris. Unearthing it slowly is truly a pleasure. The easiest way to reach here is to fly into Coimbatore, and then, drive uphill for about two and a half hours. The hills of Coonoor grow tea, hence the landscape is made of tea plantations speckled with short trees, visited by clouds all through the day.
The weather between the months of October and March is pleasantly cold; a thin sweater and a jacket will suffice. Families who love the hill life have built pretty bungalows here, while others have inherited lovely homes from their foresighted parents. Most of the residents here know each other, and share a profound love for Coonoor.
Stay at The Taj Garden Retreat in Upper Coonoor, which ensconces you in an easy-going setting with a view of the rolling hills shrouded in mist, not far from the golf course or from Sim’s Park. Golfing enthusiasts should definitely sign up for a session. Another eclectic stay experience is at the heritage property of 180° McIver—a colonial house with stunning lawns that enjoys an abundance of the winter sun and offers an old-world charm, recently made more popular by the Bollywood movie, Kapoor & Sons. The restaurant at the property, La Belle Vie, serves an Italian spread with a few Indian dishes. I enjoyed the afternoon coffee experience and promised myself a stay here the next time.
For heartful foodies, Café Diem on Kotagiri Road is the place to be. Bear in mind, though, that the café shuts at 7 pm, and that you should book a place in advance. The owner has invested her heart in every single facet of the eatery. Floral patterned napkins, a distinctive menu card, hand-picked decor accessories, a relaxing terrace deck where the sun sets as if only for those patiently waiting with their cappuccinos, potted plants and book shelves, an artefact of the sleeping Buddha on the mantle of a brick fireplace, and much more. Then comes the sophisticated vegetarian food. My favourites from both my visits here are the mushroom tarts, onion and cheese tarts, grilled paninis, pumpkin coconut soup, and nolen gur (palm jaggery) ice cream. The salads are fresh, with edible flowers as refreshing garnish.
Because I was with locals, I found myself one afternoon drinking beer on the verandah of the Wellington Gymkhana club. This was indeed a verandah with a view. The golf course stretched in all directions, with a set of trees lining it, fringed by a set of trees. The club is more than a century old; its glorious past greets you right at the entrance and allows you to stay there as you explore the building—a military-themed bar aptly named Gun Bar, with a big gun, taxidermy animals adorning the walls, black leather sofas, and large dining rooms offering delicious continental classics like soufflé and brûlée. A word of advice: the place still follows the British-laid rules of dressing for men.
When you are ready to step out of the retro vibe, head to the Open Kitchen pizzeria on Club Road in Bedford. It is advisable to have a word with the owner before you plan a visit. There are not too many tables, the stairway is narrow. However, as you step into this warm and fuzzy eatery, and find a seat, pause to look around. Movie posters brighten the restored walls. Pop culture vibe is predominant, unlike the rest of Coonoor. The pizzas are made fresh-to-order, the kitchen is open, and you will be delightfully assaulted by the aromas. Order a Bacon Bomb Pizza and an Olive Jalapeño Vegetarian Pizza. The whole-wheat thin crust is baked to perfection, the toppings flavourful. I also ordered an apple tart that came with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The tart was a tiny burst of joy in my mouth, the caramelised sugar seeping perfectly into the fruit.
Homestays are popular in Coonoor. For those who choose to stay in one of the homestays, ordering in is a great idea on a cold winter night. We ordered in parathas (Indian flatbread) and mutton pepper fry from the good old Hotel Ramachandra on Elk Hill. This combination is heavenly for those who can handle spicy food, and is best accompanied by a fizzy Thums Up (an Indian cola drink). Their keema paratha is equally delicious. Vegan food is served in the restaurant too. This no-frills restaurant is known for good food since 1857. They may not offer elegant decor or ambience, but they do commit to taste.
Everyone describes the toy train that runs from Mettupalayam to Ooty via Coonoor as joyful. Built by the British, the single line railway track falls under the jurisdiction of the Mountain Railways, and has been declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. As you chug along, the views of dense Shola forests, countless birds, bountiful waterfalls, and misty mountains enchant you.
Between Coonoor and Ooty is another gem, an eatery called Culinarium, located in a place called Bicketty. It is adjacent to an idyllic store called the Pony Needle Craft, which is a knitter’s delight. At Culinarium, book a table by the window, as the view from here is mesmerising. The restaurant serves American and Continental food, the soups are delicious, and their multigrain bread is spot on. Begin with the croissants, mini baguettes, and brioche with homemade butter. I recommend you order a chicken and mushroom pot pie, with a side of greens and a raspberry vinaigrette. The pastry shell is flaky, and the filling is creamy smooth. The portions are quite generous too. There are excellent options for vegetarians as well on the menu. End the meal with their homemade ice cream (they make them vegan as well). Salted caramel, lavender, strawberry, or chocolate, the ice creams are exquisite, smooth, and pleasing to the palate.
For a DIY cheese-making experience, make a booking at Acres Wild. While it remains on my to-do list for now, rumour has it that it is worth every minute spent. So, if you are a traveller who loves the hills or a foodie who loves to explore, then a trip to Coonoor should be on the cards. Trust me, this hill station in the Nilgiris will find a spot in your heart forever.
Gorge on biscuits, share a slice of marble cake with your travel companion, and buy a fresh loaf for later, at Coonoor’s famous patisserie, Crown Bakery.
Coimbatore is the nearest airport. A drive to Coonoor from Coimbatore takes about two hours.
October to March is the best time to visit Coonoor, when the temperatures range between 10 °C and 20 °C.
Families, solo travellers, and gourmands.
The Wellington Gymkhana Club, one of the oldest clubs in the country, has a sprawling golf course and a discernible English charm. Spread over a five-acre ground, Coonoor Club is a landmark club in the Nilgiris.